“What is the best handgun caliber for self-defense?” is the most talked about topic among shooters and most confusing for new shooters. In fact if you Google this there are millions of pages and forum posts and varying opinions on the topic. Many of which are very heated debates on the issue. In reality the best handgun caliber for you may not be the same for me or the situation I am likely to find myself in. This article will take a very rational approach to the topic and look at the factors you need to consider when selecting your preferred calibers. This is meant to be informative and thought provoking to all preppers and shooters no matter their background on this topic.
Any Bullet is Better then No Bullet.
Yes every bullet can kill someone. A .22lr is just as lethal as a .50 Action Express(AE) with proper shot placement and conditions. In an SHTF scenario a person would use any round they can get their hands on. That’s why such products as 12 Gauge barrel adapters exist to allow someone to use any cartridge they can scavenge from a single gun. For a prepper this debate is pretty much geared towards what to stockpile and what caliber firearms you should own. The question “if you had to bug out with only one handgun what would it be?” also comes to mind because lets face it most gun owners treat guns more like fashion accessories and have one for every occasion. That said it’s important to get some reactive shooting targets and go the range and working on being a good shooter with any caliber or gun not just you preferred. That way in SHTF you are effective no matter what you have at that moment.
So why does handgun caliber matter?
Each Caliber has unique properties and limitations. Some are better for concealment like a 380 ACP. Some are better for taking down big game like a 44 Magnum or 10mm Auto. Some are more economical to shoot and carry like 22lr or 9mm. So when you approach the debate as they are all good in different conditions there really isn’t a single “best handgun caliber”. The question becomes “which one is best for me and my situation?” Which the rest of this article will attempt to address.
Removing The Stopping Power Bias
Many discussion on this topic focus solely on “stopping power.” While I believe we should give stopping its due respect we should also keep an open mind. Yes the ability to stop a target in it’s tracks is very important factor. This factor has a lot more to do with the type of ammo you carry over the caliber with the key being hallow points. And even though .22lr has a low stopping power compared to many rounds you might consider that fact that a 22lr round tumbles and bounces around inside the body makes it more lethal in many ways. Stories of police facing attackers on drugs like PCP have brought the topic of stopping power to the forefront of other factors. The ballistics principles of stopping power focus on the amount of damage inflicted on the body by the energy transferred from the bullet. This along with hydro-static shock make up the modern day concept of stopping power. This basis is still simply a guideline given that persons of shear willpower have been known to fight long after they should have been dead from their wounds. The key is to make sure under stress you can accurately deliver one or more shots to the heart or head with your chosen caliber.
Balance of Factors
When picking a caliber and gun you should balance number of factors according to your situation, your needs and your ability. Carrying a “man-stopper” caliber like .357 and 45 ACP means nothing if you can’t hit your target under stress. The following I believe are the key considerations to selection.
- Round Availability
- Cost per Round
- Firearm Cost and Availability
- Personal Accuracy
- Stopping Power
- Recoil and Successive shots
- Personal Preference
- Carry Profile -Size & Weight
- Ammunition Needs — Capacity & Reload Speed
- Potential Target — Likelihood of Armor, Painkilling Drugs, or hard cover
These are the first major limiting factors. What’s available? If all that is available is a surplus Mosin Revolver and a box of ammo then that’s what you will be using. Each person has a different financial standing so I can’t tell you to drop $2300 on a Wilson Combat 1911 for reliability sake. Keep in mind here is the cost per round, availability of the round, then the firearms upkeep and spare parts costs. If you can’t afford to shoot it and lose it, then don’t.
Starting from the Common Calibers.
The best narrowing point is to use the “common calibers”. These calibers are the most manufactured and commonly used calibers making them more available and lower cost per round then other options. Many are used by law enforcement, or military which bring the costs down dramatically. The calibers in order of bullet and cartridge diameter are: .22 long rifle, 380 ACP, 9mm luger, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .40 Smith and Wesson, and .45 ACP. Other calibers are still useful but from a cost and availability perspective are something you want to be mindful of and probably won’t make your Every Day Carry (EDC) or bug out list. I like to use Walmart as an acid test. The cartridges they carry are the ones in highest demand by the most people. Then look at the general availability and the overall cost and it will tell you a lot about the which are the best calibers economically.
Round Availability — During the Ammo shortages of 2012 through 2014 the easiest pistol ammo to find was 40SW. This happens to be the same caliber the police use. The hardest caliber to find in ammo shortage is .22 long rifle. Based on my observation here is the common caliber list in order of what was most available during the ammo shortage. 40 SW, 45 ACP, 9MM Luger, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, 380 ACP, .22lr. These were my observations around different the parts of Ohio I visited and over the internet.
Cost Per round (CPR) — Ammo prices tend to rise and fall in relationship to each other, unless something is altering the individual demand or cost of a caliber like higher 22 long rifle demand factors. 9mm tends to be a good balance of buying power and stopping power when you are CPR minded.
The most consistent price relationship between the common calibers I have noticed is as follows. With “n” being the price of 9mm ammo. The easiest way to look at this is how many 9MM rounds could you buy instead of buying a different caliber. These numbers are also good to think about in relationship to bartering ammo post social collapse.
22lr = 0.35n
9mm = 1.0n
40SW = 1.3n
380 ACP =1.45n
.38 Special = 1.5n
45ACP = 2.2n
.357 Magnum = 2.2n
Firearm cost and Availability — Avoiding Hi Points, you will want to find the best quality pistol you can buy with your money. Remember this is a gun to save your life so don’t cheap out. Worst thing is to have your gun break or not work when it’s needed. Depending on the area, local laws, or demand you may have trouble finding a good affordable pistol in your desired caliber. At the end of the day something is better then nothing. The only good sub $200 pistol in a .38 Special Revolver. At $200 a semi-auto one is likely to jam or have trouble with various ammo. So be careful.
It goes without saying that you should be effective with whatever firearm you carry. Otherwise it’s simply there to arm your enemy. You may not have an option economically what firearm you buy. Luckily effectiveness is something you can work on. So if your not effective now you can get better.
Personal Accuracy – Training is important. Get some shooting targets and constantly train. Keep your skills up. This is a skill that if you don’t use it you lose it. Make sure you are capable of accurately hitting a target at 50 ft. Then work on drawing from your holster, and then moving while shooting. Practice in the rain, or snow. The more adverse the conditions the better the training. You can always work your way up to the larger calibers.
Stopping power – You have already heard my arguments that stopping power isn’t everything. However I agree with most people that the smallest size gun someone should carry is 380 ACP. A .22lr is a good round but not for EDC. That’s more like a suppressed stealth mission specific pistol, not something to stop the local biker gang from raping a family member.
Recoil and Successive Shots — Overtime you will learn how to drive the recoil to the next shot with any caliber. However being able to manage the recoil and take a second shoot is a critical skill to develop. In this way a 9mm Luger is a good round because the recoil is low enough that for most shooters the follow up shots are quicker and more accurate. Remember the shorter the barrel and lighter the pistol the heavier the recoil.
Personal Preference — I personally am more accurate with hammer fire weapons like a Sig Sauer SP 2022 or 1911. I am ok with striker fire like Glocks, but as a result I prefer a hammer fire. I believe this is due to the difference in locked-breach design (Sig Sauers, 1911s) instead of the blow-back design (Glock, Springfield, etc). Overtime you will develop preferences like I have. It’s good to leverage them for success, but also try to balance them out in case of SHTF and you need to use whatever you find.
Circumstances may or may not make one weapon better than others. For instance if you absolutely need to conceal the weapon in tight fitting cloths you need something small and compact. This puts a 380 ACP pocket pistol at the top of the list. An area where you might end up dealing with a gang might encourage you to carry a semi-auto over a revolver for higher capacity and quicker reloads.
Carry Profile — What will it take to carry the firearm and spare ammo? You must take into account the weight and size of the carry to make sure it stays concealed. In the concealed carry term is called “printing.” This is when you can see the outline for the firearm through the shirt or clothing. Good news is generally people aren’t paying enough attention to notice someone carrying. But in some scenarios I will carry a 380 ACP pocket pistol rather then my typical 40 SW Sig Sauer SP2022. Sometimes a slimmer gun is preferred to reduce printing so you go with a single stack firearm over double. Because of these concerns a lot of people conceal carry a 380 ACP or 9mm. If two shots are enough a derringer can be a good way to use a bigger caliber like 45 acp in a vest pocket.
Ammunition Needs — Statistically the typical gun fight is 3 shots. So almost any firearm can handle that. I personally prefer a semi-auto with higher capacity mags. A magazine change is easy and quick compared to a speed loader. I like to carry 2 extra mags with me and even more in the car if I need them. This way I can fight my way to my car and then get out of there. I’m not saying you will need to carry 36 rounds like I do. If you were for instance needing to go grocery shopping in Ferguson Missouri post Micheal Brown riots it would certainly be good to have extra rounds incase a gang decides to make an example out of you. Higher Ammo needs will reduce the likelihood of using a 38 Special or .357 magnum. You might find yourself carrying a 9mm to get more rounds per magazine while keeping good stopping power per round balance.
Penetration — Will you have to shoot through cover or at a target with body armor? Then you might want something more like a 10mm, 7.62×25 (with Steel Core ammo), or more exotic calibers like .50 AE. Of the common calibers my pick is 40 SW or 357 Magnum for this. At the same time if the area is crowded you might want to reduce penetration and go for a smaller 380 ACP with hollow points to reduce the chance of hitting innocent bystanders.
Distance — Distance has a lot more to do with the firearm then the ammo. A longer barrel will make it more accurate at a distance. However I would probably not use a .22lr or 380 acp for this as they will be less effective at range. If you are close range then it doesn’t matter much what you have.
Potential Targets — Ever since the Aura Colorado Movie Theater shooting many concealed carriers started carrying ball ammo with them along with hollow point. This is just in case you end up shooting at an armored target. This increases penetration. It may not go through the armor but it will hurt a lot more to stop those rounds. Being mindful of the potential targets you may come up against can help you decide the caliber. If armored targets where my issue I would switch to carrying a Tokerev 7.62×25 with steel core surplus ammo as my sidearm as these are proven to go through level 3 body armor. If you felt stopping a car’s engine was necessary then a Desert Eagle .50 AE might actually be useful for you.
In the end what you carry is all up to your preference, comfort and skill level. Personally I carry 40SW and 45ACP most of the time. If I have to reduce printing I will carry a 380 ACP. Sometimes my backup ankle gun is a 9mm luger. It all depends on where I am going, and what my concerns are. If things get really bad my goal is to use my carry to get myself back to my car where I can drive off or get a long gun. Use the factors above to help make a good choice. There is no right or wrong answer here so pick what works best for you and your situation.